Unpaid Internships: Issues to Consider

Your Rights as an Intern

Before starting an internship, you should make yourself familiar with the federal guidelines for internships, particularly unpaid internships. This fact sheet on how the Fair Labor Standards Act applies to interns is a must-read, as is this blog post from the US Department of Labor.

Why Accept an Unpaid Internship?

An unpaid internship may not lead directly to a job offer before graduation, but it can help you in other ways.

Any Google search of “paid vs. unpaid internships” will turn up articles from early 2013 asserting that unpaid internships have little value for post-graduation employment. According to a study by the National Association of College and Employers, 35.2% of surveyed seniors who had held unpaid internships had jobs in hand upon graduation, as compared with 37% of students who had held no internships. However, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has pointed out that the research cited in such articles does NOT support the claim that unpaid internships confer no value. The study doesn’t take into account employment rates for people who find jobs after graduation, nor does it consider the differences between the kinds of organizations that offer paid and unpaid internships (large vs. small, corporate vs. not-for-profit). Most tellingly, it says nothing about the match between graduating seniors, the jobs they find, and the careers they want.

The bottom line: don’t assume that an unpaid internship–any internship–will help you graduate with a job offer. DO consider the ways that an unpaid internship can

    • identify your workplace strengths and weaknesses,
    • give you information about the kinds of work you enjoy,
    • supply you with work experience relevant to your goals,
    • better understand the structure and complexities of the kind of organization you want to work for,
    • learn first-hand about pressing issues in your chosen field,
    • help you map out a career path,
    • connect you with mentors,
    • develop your network.

Your Responsibilities as an Intern

The decision to to take you on as an intern represents an organization’s investment of time and energy in you. You should only accept an unpaid internship if you are prepared to take responsibility for the projects and tasks assigned to you, as you would in a paid job after graduation.

Make sure you understand what you will gain from an unpaid internship, and in deciding whether or not to accept the position, be realistic about whether those benefits will be enough to motivate you for the duration of your commitment.